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June 7, 2010

1) Class Size Explosion: The Myth and the Math. In their unprecedented effort to pass the $23 billion edujobs bill, the National Education Association and its allies in Congress are making some dire claims about class size.

NEA is running an ad with adorable waifs asserting that "classrooms are more crowded than ever." Congressmen David Obey and George Miller wrote to the Washington Post, "As many as 300,000 school employees are in danger of losing their jobs. If that happens, class sizes will explode and educational opportunities will decline drastically for millions of children."

Let's start with the obvious: There is no credible evidence that "classrooms are more crowded than ever." The contrary is more likely to be true. NEA's own research (page ix) states, "The average number of students per teacher declined from 15.3 in 2007-08 to 15.2 in 2008-09." NEA believes the difference between student/teacher ratio and average class size is "9 or 10 students."

But this argument is not about current class size. It's about class sizes exploding due to threatened teacher layoffs. Let's take a look at those numbers. We'll start off with round numbers for ease of computation and use the worst case scenario.

We have roughly 49 million K-12 students being taught by 3.2 million classroom teachers. But let's assume that special education is untouchable. There are 6.6 million special education students being taught by 473,000 special education teachers. Subtract them out, and you have 42.4 million students and 2,727,000 teachers. That's a student/teacher ratio of 15.5. Using NEA's estimate, let's add 9.5 students for an average class size of 25.

Now we'll factor in the effect of not passing the edujobs bill. The worst case number is 300,000 education jobs lost, but let's err on the side of hyperbole and assume that all 300,000 jobs lost are those of regular K-12 classroom teachers. And we'll assume that enrollment of the regular student population climbs by its recent average - 0.1 percent or 42,400. We'll have 42,442,400 students but only 2,427,000 teachers. That's a student/teacher ratio of 17.5. That gives us an average class size of 27.

So if we take the most extreme claims and add to them, we can still generate no larger an effect than two students per class - with special ed untouched. Some explosion. The last time we had such an horrendously large student/teacher ratio was... 1996.

No one wants to return to the days of the Clinton administration, but I don't recall NEA, Obey or Miller painting it at the time as the nadir of American public education. We made it through once. I'm sure we can do it again.

2) The Other Bailout. While union lobbyists are struggling to get a bailout package for school districts, they are having a lot more success getting help for their own finances.

NEA and other unions have managed to get both the House and the Senate to pass private pension relief as part of the American Workers, State and Business Relief Act. Why would a public school teachers' union be so concerned with private pensions? You can be forgiven if you forgot that NEA is a private entity, employing private sector workers. And because many of those workers are skilled in labor negotiations, the benefits they bargain for themselves tend to be substantial. I'm not privy to all of NEA's internal worries, but I think covering staff pension liabilities ranks near the top. Hence the call for regulatory relief.

Have some Kleenex handy as you read this tale of woe from NEA Director of Government Relations Kim Anderson:

"NEA's knowledge about the severe challenges that private sector employers are facing in maintaining their defined benefit pension plans has been gained first hand through the experience of our affiliated associations throughout the country, nearly all of whom maintain defined benefit pension plans on both a single employer and multiemployer basis for their own employees.  For the most part, NEA's affiliates are financially stable, mature organizations with predictable cash flow. These organizations take pride in providing retirement security for their staff employees by maintaining well-funded defined benefit pension plans. Yet, application of the stringent funding rules of the PPA to plans that have suffered a drastic and unpredictable market drop in the value of their funding, has suddenly made sustaining those plans a nearly unbearable burden.

"And it is not just the plans that are jeopardized by this funding crisis: many of NEA's affiliated associations are being forced to postpone, curtail, or eliminate regular services, staffing, and capital improvements, often on top of increases in member dues. This is because, absent relief, the average NEA affiliate is facing the immediate obligation to make funding contributions equal to 37 percent of its payroll, just to maintain its defined benefit pension plan. Unless they are given some temporary flexibility in how to recoup the severe investment losses of the last two years suffered by their plans, many of these plans will not be sustained, and the organizations will be substantially damaged financially as well."

Some of you may think that this is a unique instance of NEA siding against government regulation. But the union also believes the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act is too burdensome. We're making progress!

3) School Improvement in Detroit? From the Detroit Free Press: "Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial officer Robert Bobb said Thursday that he'll soon release a report saying the district can afford to educate just 26,000 of its 76,000 students without deep cuts to operating and long-term employee costs for retirement and health care."

Would it be mean to suggest that if Detroit were to educate 26,000 of its 76,000 students it would be an improvement?

4) Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing. Isn't it time for a moratorium on stories about teachers' unions trying to organize charter school employees? The latest appears in The Notebook, out of Philadelphia. In the entire state of Pennsylvania, a grand total of three charter schools are unionized (out of 67), and the unions have been at it for at least 10 years. Never have so many written so much about so little.

5) Last Week's Intercepts. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from June 1-7:

*  Big News from NYC & DC? Meh. I'll take that kind of "pay freeze" every year.

DC Teachers Contract: Probably Good for DC, Probably Meaningless Elsewhere. If this is reform, who can pay for it?

Teacherpocalypse Reduced. The still-working pink-slipped.

CTA Issues Non-Apology to Black Voice News. Miscommunication and misunderstanding.

6) Quote of the Week. "We are witnessing a familiar government dance, the Prosperity-to-Hysteria Two-Step: When revenue grows, governments put in place permanent spending streams; when revenue falls, governments exclaim that any retrenchment, even back to spending levels of a few years ago, is a 'catastrophe.'" - George Will. (June 6 Washington Post)


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